Acts 11:1-18 (Fifth Sunday of Easter—Series C)
“The Gift God Has Given Us
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
May 19, 2019
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text today is recorded in Acts 11:
Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, 3 “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” 4 But Peter began and explained it to them in order: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. 6 Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. 7 And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ 10 This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. 11 And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. 12 And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; 14 he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ 15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” 18 When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
Have you ever thought about some of the revolutionary ideas that have changed the world? For example, the cotton gin revolutionized the harvesting of and production of cotton. The railroad meant that we could move people and goods faster and cheaper over long distances. The electric light means that we don’t have to go to bed when the sun goes down. Then there is the telephone, once so simple which has now evolved into this minicomputer that you carry in your pocket or purse so that we are connected around the globe to people and events in mere seconds. This morning I want to take you back to one seemingly revolutionary idea that changed the world—Gentiles receive repentance unto life!
The New Testament word for “Gentiles is e;qnoj (ethnos). It means “nation” or “ethnicity.” It’s the specific word which the New Testament writers used for the Hebrew word, yAG ((goy) “nation.” Either you were part of the ~[‘ (‘am), God’s “people” of Israel, or you were part of the “goyim,” the other nations. Goyim were not part of the Lord’s covenant people Israel. The covenant of circumcision was not given to the goyim, but rather to the people of Israel. The Law, the Ten Commandments, was not given to the goyim, but rather to the people of Israel. None of the holiness codes of the Old Testament that made Israel stand apart from the other nations as God’s holy people—the laws governing what foods should or should not be eaten, the laws governing ritual cleansing and sacrifice—none of them were given to the goyim.
God’s people of Israel were truly set apart from the nations. Reading from Exodus 19, “The Lord called to [Moses] out of the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel’” (Exodus 19:3-6).
Perhaps you can understand the panic and angst caused by Peter in going to the house of the Roman Cornelius. Not only did Peter enter the house of a goy, Peter also ate with him and his family foods that the nations eat, but not the people of Israel! The Jewish believers in Jesus at this point in time were especially zealous for the Law and they insisted that there should be no interaction between the circumcised (the people of Israel) and the uncircumcised (the Gentiles). And Peter would have agreed. He felt that way too. When the Lord gave Peter the vision of the sheet let down from heaven with all kinds of ceremonially common or unclean, non-kosher food and the Lord told him, “Arise Peter, kill and eat,” Peter told the Lord “no.” That was no small thing! For never had a particle of such food come into his mouth and Peter wasn’t about to start now, even at the Lord’s command! But after three times of telling the Lord “no” and after three times in which the Lord told Peter, “What God has made clean, do not call common,” Peter was summoned into the home of goyim, the Gentile house of Cornelius.
And did Peter go? Yes, he did. Why? The Holy Spirit told him to go with these Gentiles, making no distinction. The whole thing about the sheet and the non-kosher food was an object lesson for Peter. It really wasn’t about the food, it was about who the food represented—the goyim, the nations, the Gentiles. If God did not want Peter and the early Jewish believers in Jesus making a distinction about food, how much more did God not want them to be making distinctions between peoples for whom the Lord Christ had suffered and died!
This was a revolutionary idea to Peter and the others in the early church. This was a whole new concept for them. If God made no distinction between believing Gentiles and believing Jews, how could Peter or anyone else maintain a barrier which plainly God ignored? To do so would oppose God! So in Cornelius’ house, Gentiles, without becoming Jewish converts first, received the Word of Christ, and having received it, were admitted into the Christian Church! What else could be said? God had acted and had clearly shown His will. God had bestowed His blessing on Gentiles too, giving them through the Holy Spirit a change of mind and heart and the assurance of eternal life.
In all this, Peter was only God’s agent. God Himself was the author of everything. God’s great purpose in bringing Peter into this Gentiles’ house was a matter of saving this household of goyim. And that was God’s plan from the very beginning.
What seemed so revolutionary to Peter and the early Jewish believers was really not so new after all. God had always intended that the Savior He would send through the people of Israel would be the Savior not just for Jews but for the nations, for the Gentiles, the goyim. The very first time God made His covenant with Abraham the Lord promised, “. . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3b). The prophet Isaiah announced, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations [goyim!] shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isa 60:1-3). Through God’s promised Savior and Redeemer, all people—Jew and Gentile—are brought out of the darkness of their sins and into the light of God’s salvation.
At the right time, God sent forth His Son, Jesus Christ. The true Light came into the world of darkness and sin. He ate and drank with the bottom of Jewish society, with the tax collectors and sinners. He touched and healed the lepers. He ministered to the Samaritan woman at the well and the people of her village (those who were not exactly Jew or Gentile!) Jesus healed the Roman Centurion’s servant, even though the Centurion was considered a “Gentile-sinner.”
Jesus is an equal opportunity Savior! Our Lord gave Himself into death on a cross for the sins of the whole world—for the sins of Jews and for the sins of Gentiles—because God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1Tim. 2:4). “There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:26). The blood of Jesus cleanses all people from their sins, no matter who they are or what they have done. And all means “all,” “everyone.” The Word declares in Galatians 3, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). St. Paul writes again by the power of the Holy Spirit in Romans 1, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith.”
How significant, then, is our text today for our lives in Jesus Christ? Here in Acts 11 we get a good glimpse of what Jesus’ mission was that He gave to His disciples, to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. We come to understand the Apostle Paul’s ministry as missionary to the Gentiles, whom God also wants to hear the Gospel message of Jesus’ cross and resurrection. But there is also comfort for us in our text. Hearing this Word of God, we know that Christ is for us—goyim, Gentiles though we be! We too are saved by Jesus Christ. We are forgiven all our sins and we are made children of our heavenly Father. He doesn’t look at us as Jew or Gentile, or even male and female, but as His beloved, His redeemed. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1Peter 2:9).
And this should form how we look at and approach other people. God shows no partiality, no favoritism (Acts 10:34). All people are loved by Him, sinners though they be. The Lord loves all people, even with their baggage of trespasses and boatload of guilt. He offers them all equally through the Gospel message the free gifts of forgiveness and eternal life that Jesus purchased and won for everyone on the cross. And to offer those wondrous gifts through Gospel words the Lord chooses people like Peter and Paul, you and me.
Christ bids us not to show partiality and favoritism. He wants us to be like the farmer in His parable of the sower and the seed, indiscriminately tossing the Gospel to all who will listen (and even to those who won’t!) We know the seed of the Word will fall on all types of soil, some of which enable it to take root and grow and others where it will wither and die. But with whom we share the Gospel is not for our picking and choosing. It’s a message that we are to tell everyone we can because we don’t know when and where God the Holy Spirit will give that message the growth of saving faith in a person’s heart. God sets up the opportunities just like He set up the appointment between Peter and Cornelius, so that Cornelius’ whole household could hear the Gospel and receive the gift of saving faith in Jesus.
In love and mercy, God chose to share the Good News of His Son our Savior Jesus Christ with us goyim, us Gentiles, through the Gospel Word. He chose to save us, and all people, from sin, death, and everlasting condemnation through the sacrifice, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Now He gives you and me opportunities to share the very same Good News of salvation in Jesus with the nations, the people with whom we meet in our work and in our play—to proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light! He sets up these divine appointments so that, by the work of the Holy Spirit, individuals and even households might be saved by faith in Jesus as their Savior. And no, this is not really a revolutionary idea. It has been God’s plan from the very beginning that all people should be saved. Yet, when people receive the gift of faith in Jesus, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life through the Gospel, it is always revolutionary! Amen.